"Undo the top two buttons of your shirt, please."
She counted down the ribs from his clavicle with a sticky fingertip, dabbed more gel, and painted a tiny, wet spiral over his heart. Her hair smelled like freshly opened apples and something ineffable - dry ice, he thought - one of those dizzying alchemies of hair product research. From the degree to which she was leaning over him (he counseled himself not to look down her blouse), and the slight squint in her eyes, he thought she must be nearsighted. The wrinkles at the corners suggested she was around his age, mid-thirties. Her nose, though not indelicate, had a slight finlike curve to it, which taken in combination with those dark, peering eyes, gave her the slightly comical look of an inquisitive bird. He wondered how many condemned men, as they were being strapped into electric chairs, had spent their last moments checking out the ladies seated among the witnesses.
She reached up and pressed the helmet onto his head.
"The session will last twenty minutes. All you have to do is sit back and relax. Let's get you reclined. The lever's on the right."
He did as told, window swinging away, ceiling swinging into view.
Directly above, in the firmament of perforated tiles, a poster of a spiral galaxy had been taped. Mira Egghart's upside-down head, like a wayward planetoid, floated into view.
"You probably won't want to, but if you feel you need to stop, just say the word - the helmet has a mic attached. Or if you can't speak, just wave. Please don't handle the helmet yourself."
If I can't speak...
She left the room, switching off the light. The instant she did so the air grew swampy and his skin prickled. These days, Fred didn't like the dark, nor any hint of confinement. He could turn his head only slightly in the helmet, but by keeping his eyes trained down his face, he was able to see Mira now standing in the control room. She leaned forward over the desk, reaching up toward the top of the window, her blouse taut against her breasts and lifting to reveal a glittering stud in her navel as her fingers clasped the pull of a black shade. She brought it down in one quick motion, after which, just above the window, a dim red bulb went on. As best he could with his head immobilized, Fred looked around the room:
Jar of gel.
Galaxy wheeling above.
Excerpted from Luminarium by Alex Shakar. Copyright © 2011 by Alex Shakar. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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